I agree with Bryan: Frederic Bastiat's essay "What is Seen and What is Not Seen" is "the pinnacle of profundity." Indeed, on re-reading Bryan's post on Bastiat from last summer, I realized he wrote most of what I was planning to write. Specifically, arguments that play well with the electorate on issues like immigration and regulation are simply wrong. I'll quote Bryan on his life before economic enlightenment:
Every teacher and book I ever encountered treated naive populism like the Law of Gravitation. Evil businesses aren't paying workers enough? Raise the minimum wage; problem solved. The elderly are poor? Increase Social Security payments; problem solved. Evil businesses are selling people bad drugs? Impose more government regulation; problem solved.
If you favor these programs, you can call these arguments straw men. But I assure you: These "straw men" were never presented by opponents of these policies. On the contrary, these "straw men" were invariably presented by people who favored these policies. How is that possible? Because during my first 17 years of life, I never encountered an opponent of any of these policies! You might assume I was grew up in a weird Berkeley-esque leftist enclave, but bland Northridge, California hardly qualifies.
What was going on? The best explanation is pretty simple: I only heard straw man arguments in favor of populist policies because virtually everyone finds these straw man arguments pleasantly convincing. Regardless of the merits of the minimum wage, Social Security, and the FDA, economic illiteracy is the reason for their popularity. If someone like Bastiat convinced people that the pleasantly convincing arguments are inane, proponents would have to fall back on arguments that are intellectually better yet rhetorically inferior.
This could be availability bias, but in my writing for and speaking to general audiences on basic economics I find that people cling passionately to arguments that Bastiat (or Adam Smith, or...) refuted over a century and a half ago. Bastiat is needed as much as ever in a world where most policy debates are about as serious as this clip from one of my favorite episodes of South Park:
In spite of this, I drift toward optimism about our intellectual future. Here's one reason. The Institute for Humane Studies is trying to elevate the discussion with its LearnLiberty.org video project.* One of my videos discusses the Broken Window Fallacy:
*-Disclosure: I work as an Adjunct Program Officer for IHS and have received compensation for appearing in LearnLiberty.org videos. I get no payola for mentioning them on this site.